Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz plans to swiftly put together a minority government with the backing of the Arab-majority Joint List and not use the entire period allotted to form a government to negotiate a unity deal with the Likud party, the Haaretz daily reported Tuesday.
Citing a source familiar with Gantz’s plans, the report said he would target March 23 as a deadline to present for approval by the Knesset a government made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor-Gesher-Meretz (7 seats), with most or all of the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats) giving their backing from outside the coalition.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in last Monday’s election, and neither has a clear path to a majority coalition. The prime minister has the backing of 58 MKs and Likud is the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset.
But if Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the entire Joint List, which won 15 seats, were to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz form the new coalition, he would have 62 backers and could get the nod.
According to the source, Gantz does not intend making full use of the time allotted to try and negotiate a unity government with Netanyahu as he did after the last election, believing that Netanyahu has no real interest in such a deal.
And he intends to act swiftly so as not to allow Netanayhu time to try and sow discord and break the apparent fragile truce between Liberman and the Arab lawmakers.
The report said Gantz also planned to go ahead with the move despite opposition from two right-wing lawmakers in his party, Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, believing that they will fall in line once a deal is done.
Blue and White’s leadership met with Liberman on Tuesday for what the sides called a “positive and substantive” sit-down.
The top four MKs — Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — took a photo with Liberman at the end of the meeting that they disseminated on social media.
Lapid on Tuesday defended his party’s plans to form a minority government propped up on the outside by the Joint List, saying it was the only way to avert the “catastrophe” of a fourth round of consecutive elections.
Such a coalition, while “not the government we wanted,” is the only way to break the year-long political impasse, Lapid argued in a Facebook post.
Such a bid remains a long-shot effort, as some of the more rightist members of Gantz’s party have openly rejected it and vowed to oppose it, and it remains unclear whether the Joint List and Blue and White could reach an agreement. One of the demands previously raised by the Arab alliance has been Gantz’s rejection of US President Donald Trump administration’s peace plan, which the former army chief of staff has endorsed.
“Contrary to the lies that Bibi [Netanyahu] is spreading, the Joint List would not be part of this government,” Lapid wrote Tuesday. “They will vote once from the outside [to back the government], and there it will end.”
Netanyahu “has cooperated with them [the Joint List] a thousand times before. I admit in advance, this is not the government we wanted. On the other hand, it’s far preferable to the current deadlock. Such a government could set a budget, the ministries would get back to work, the Knesset committees would open, we’ll help small businesses and prevent mass layoffs.”
Likud has attempted to portray the Joint List as out of bounds of Israeli politics, terming its members “terror supporters” and citing their opposition to Zionism and some extreme anti-Israel stances by members of Balad, one of the party’s constituent factions.
Balad leader Mtanes Shihadeh on Tuesday said he would recommend that the Joint List refrain from backing any candidate for premier in its consultations with the president. He told the Voice of Palestine radio that the Joint List was waiting for an offer from Gantz and that no negotiations were currently being held.
Israel’s Arab lawmakers have long refused to join a government on ideological grounds, rooted in their support for the Palestinians. Jewish lawmakers have, mutually, seen the Arab parties as beyond the pale and generally refrained from including them in coalition calculi. Under its current leader, Ayman Odeh, however, segments of the Joint List have seemingly softened their opposition to such a partnership. After the previous national vote in September, the party backed Gantz for the premiership, breaking with its longstanding refusal to endorse candidates for prime ministers.
The relationship between the Jewish and Arab lawmakers, nonetheless, remains highly strained, marred by mutual distrust and disagreements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlement-building and Zionism. The tensions have been exacerbated by comments by hard-line Joint List members that have appeared to support violence against Israelis, as well as increasingly strident rhetoric about the Joint List, and the Arab Israeli community in general, from Jewish politicians, including Netanyahu.
In his comments Tuesday, Lapid wrote that the only alternative to a coalition voted in by the Joint List would be another election — the fourth in just over a year — which would be a “catastrophe.”
“We would go to fourth elections, like Bibi wants. Yes, it’s as terrible as it sounds. More elections, more baseless hatred, more incitement, more violence, billions more shekels wasted,” he wrote.
Lapid also voiced support for a unity government with Likud, but said that option was impossible since Netanyahu would not agree to a rotation agreement of the premiership that would see Gantz serve as prime minister first.
“The problem is that there is no one to talk to. We checked a thousand times. Bibi rejected it entirely. The only thing that interests him is his indictments,” Lapid said, alluding to Netanyahu’s refusal to step down ahead of his upcoming corruption trial.
Unity talks to form a government made up of Likud and Blue and White failed following the September elections.
Gantz and Liberman said Monday they would work together to form a government. Liberman had vowed not to work with the Joint List, but appeared to soften his stance in the name of pulling Israel out of its year-long political logjam.